Shortly after we moved to Seattle my mom sent me a link to a YouTube video about visiting Yosemite National Park in the off-season in order to experience a phenomenon called frazil ice. Frazil ice occurs when mist freezes–streams end up looking like they are flowing with slush rather than water.
Obviously there are other benefits to visiting the national parks in the off-season: fewer people, lower prices, no bugs, and the opportunity to experience a lesser known side of the park. Brian and I both had Presidents’ Day off and decided it would be the perfect time to verify the winter visit recommendation for ourselves! We flew direct to San Francisco, rented a car, and set out for our weekend in the park.
Overall Yosemite in winter was magical—there were fewer people so it felt as though we had some of the main sights to ourselves, and we were able to fully appreciate the majesty of the Sierra Nevada mountains, painted in stark contrast to the endless blue skies and bright, white snow on our final day.
The downsides to visiting this time of year? The abundance of snow falling toward the beginning of our trip created near white-out conditions at times– we couldn’t see any of the mountains around us. The roads were packed with snow and ice, requiring chains to even enter the park, and the few people battling the elements–us included–had to slowly make our way through the park to parking lots, trails, and sights similarly buried in drifts.
Also, some of the hikes on our list, including Half Dome, were completely off limits and dangerous. We stopped in the visitor center to ask the rangers where we could safely hike and were directed to some shorter and lower elevation hikes near Yosemite Falls.
While these situations we encountered might not be the case every winter season based on the amount of snow and weather conditions, it’s always worth looking ahead to make sure the things you really want to see and do are accessible when you travel off-season. On the other hand—if they’re not—you might get to experience something you wouldn’t have otherwise.
We had a wonderful weekend in the park, including overnight stays in some pretty incredible spots. Here are a few other highlights from our winter weekend in Yosemite National Park.
Bridalveil Falls is not only popular because of its beauty from multiple angles–it’s also very accessible and only a short, paved walk from the parking lot!
It was less accessible during our visit thanks to the feet of snow covering the area, but we didn’t mind! We hiked out and back to this lovely falls, enjoying the meandering trail through the woods and along the rushing river resulting from the falls.
Yosemite Valley Chapel and Sentinel Bridge
Mid-way through the clockwise drive around Yosemite Valley we pulled over to explore the Yosemite Valley Chapel and the area the road encircles. I posted a picture of the historic chapel online while we were there and a friend immediately commented that her friends had gotten married in the chapel! It was stunning in winter so I can only imagine how beautiful a spot it must have been for their wedding, no matter what season it occurred.
We crossed the road and headed toward Sentinel Bridge where we had 360 degree views of the surrounding area. As we walked along the Merced River we finally saw some significant amounts of frazil ice! I posted a short video of the flow below.
Hiking Yosemite Falls Trail
The ranger station recommended we hike around Yosemite Falls–many of the popular trails we had on our list were closed due to the significant amount of snow and resulting danger of losing the trail or avalanche.
Thank goodness we had our trekking poles and Yaktrax, otherwise I’m not sure how much hiking we would have accomplished! As it was we couldn’t even make it the two miles roundtrip to Columbia Rock–it took us forever to even get up to a degree of elevation that let us see the surrounding area, and when we tried to continue on we could see where snow slides had taken out part of the trail. We decided to simply enjoy the areas we were able to safely hike!
Our final day in the park the sun and the people came out! We revisited a few places we saw in the midst of the previous days’ snowstorms, including the iconic Yosemite Falls.
The two tiers of the falls are visible from the road and parking area as well as while you’re walking the trail back toward the falls. Once you’re there, you can only see the lower tier flowing overhead. The falls were in full flow and I was so glad we got to see them lit up by the morning sunshine!
Another highlight of our final morning was breathtaking views of El Capitan.
El Capitan’s iconic granite walls dominate the west end of Yosemite Valley. At more than 3,000 feet (900+ m) above the valley floor, it is 2.5 times as tall as the Empire State Building, or more than 3 times as high as the tip of the Eiffel Tower. Coming around the corner and having El Capitan suddenly fill your field of vision sometimes moves people to tears. It is a beacon for visitors, a muse for photographers and one of the world’s ultimate challenges for climbers.
We nearly missed our plane because we looped around for one last look at Tunnel View before leaving the park. Unlike our experience on the days when it was snowing, the area was PACKED–there were so many people, and there was absolutely nowhere to park.
Brian finally told me to hop out and get my fill of the view– he would continue to inch around toward the exit and look at my pictures later. Despite the headaches, I have to say that for me, the final view of the park was worth it.
Until next time, Yosemite!